Toronto Discoveries: Youth Without Youth By Scott Foundas

in 32nd Toronto International Film Festival

by Scott Foundas

At Toronto, our FIPRESCI jury was charged with awarding a single prize to a film in the festival’s Discovery section — 14 movies described by the Toronto catalogue as “promising feature films by new and emerging directors.” By the end of the festival, the primary “discovery” made possible by these films was that one can now dwell almost anywhere on the planet and make films that are as concept-driven, slickly packaged, and direly uninspired as most of what emerges from the Hollywood.

By that, I don’t mean that these were uniformly terrible films. Most, in fact, were impeccably well-photographed. Some featured better-than-average acting. And a couple — including the surrealist Australian drama Coroboree and our eventual prize-winner, La Zona — showed flashes of genuine inspiration and original style.But just as so many movies from the increasingly hard-to-define “American Independent” arena now look and feel like black-market knock-offs of their big-studio brethren, the vast majority of Toronto’s “Discovery” titles felt like slightly exoticized versions of several reliable American Independent staples: the emotionally overwrought coming-of-age story, the earnest social-issues drama, and the “quirky” relationship comedy. And while the films themselves came from as far afield as Spain, South Africa and Macedonia, their true birthplace seemed to be the film-school petri dish, where eager young filmmaking minds are taught “proper” screenwriting etiquette, the “correct” way to shoot and edit a scene, and other techniques designed to result in impersonal and lifeless works.

Take, for example, September, a hopelessly obvious civil-rights drama set amidst the farmlands of Western Australia circa 1968 that can be thusly summarized: Idealistic white boy with a sensitive-artistic streak grows up friends with the son of his father’s aboriginal farmhand, until the ugly face of racial inequality frowns upon their blissful Camelot and turns the once-friendly jabs of the boys’ after-school boxing matches into punishing blows. Naturally, because these are good, honest country folk, they don’t say more than four or five words at a time — all the better for the film’s writer-director, Peter Carstairs, to fill the screen with lustrous images of wheat fields at dusk and barren rural roads. (It’s on one of those roads where, in the film’s climax, we see our two protagonists walk past each other in opposite directions, just in case we didn’t already get the point).

Worse still was the shrill Danish comedy With Your Permission, by actress turned director Paprika Steen, in which the mild-mannered kitchen manager of a commuter ferry must concoct increasingly elaborate cover stories for the nightly physical abuse he takes from his shrew of a wife. And this, mere months after virtually the same plot was used to fuel the commercially successful but critically lambasted Eddie Murphy comedy Norbit, which at least had the novelty of casting Murphy as both the shrew and her tamer.

Worse still was The Passage, a slightly artier, less honestly exploitative version of last year’s low-budget 20th Century Fox tourists-in-danger quickie Turistas, here with B-movie-central’s Stephen Dorff as an American photographer on vacation in Morocco who fails to heed that age-old wisdom: Beware the comely Muslim woman who cozies up to you in a crowded street bazaar, for inevitably she will want to kidnap you and sell your internal organs on the black market.

Meanwhile, the most vital movies on display in Toronto — the ones most deeply engaged with the culture that has produced them and with the language of cinema itself, the real “discoveries” — were reliably the work of filmmakers well past retirement age.

One of somewhere near a dozen films screening in the festival that bore some thematic connection to the war in Iraq, Brian De Palma’s Venice prize-winner Redacted represented an audacious attempt to reconstruct the events leading up to and following the widely reported rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by four U.S. soldiers in the town of Mahmoudiya in 2006. As others have noted, that event carries discomforting parallels to the 1966 rape and murder of a teenage Vietnamese girl that served as the basis for De Palma’s masterful 1989 film Casualties of War. But whereas Casualties was staged as straight drama, Redacted plays out as a roundelay of pseudo-documentary formats combined by De Palma in increasingly dense permutations.

Redacted begins as the purported video diary of an American army private, morphs into a French documentary with delusions of humanistic grandeur, becomes a Muslim fundamentalist website’s streaming video of IED attacks on U.S. soldiers, and sheds its skin nearly a dozen more times before it’s over. Each time the form of the film shifts, so does the perspective on the material: Did, for example, American soldiers indiscriminately open fire on a pregnant Iraqi woman after waving her through a checkpoint, as is reported by an Al Jazeera-like TV network? Or was it just a matter of linguistic confusion, as appears to be the case from the French documentary? And do such distinctions even matter given the chilly lack of remorse exhibited, in the video diary scenes, by the soldier who pulled the trigger?

Redacted poses many such questions and offers few conclusive answers, splintering and obfuscating the “truth” at every possible juncture — sometimes obviously, sometimes less so, as when De Palma inserts a single staged photograph into the montage of “actual” Iraq combat photos that concludes the film. De Palma wants to rankle audiences, especially those who may enter the theater anticipating some genteel, hand-wringing, good-little-liberal lament about the physical and emotional scars of wartime. Instead, Redacted is unapologetically angry and direct, and De Palma does very little to ease viewers into the movie. Some have suggested that this is evidence of haphazard construction, or shoddy acting by the film’s largely unknown cast, but it is the entire point of Redacted that we are observing crude, found video objects, and that their subjects, aware of the camera that’s recording them, assume the awkwardly self-conscious stances of people in vacation pictures and birthday-party videos.

Indeed, the biggest enigma of Redacted may be that anyone could take the film’s dizzying manipulations of image and reality as anything less than fully intentional on the part of a director who has spent his entire career pondering the art of voyeurism and who is on record as saying, “Where the camera is placed is, to me, as important as the material itself.” But De Palma’s movies have rarely been less than divisive affairs, and unlike some of his recent work (including last year’s The Black Dahlia), Redacted can withstand the criticism and then some.

George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead isn’t an Iraq movie per se, even if, like Romero’s previous picture, 2005’s Land of the Dead, it features one unmistakable reference to the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib. But like Redcated, Romero’s film also dons multiple guises, primarily that of a student-made documentary called The Death of Death that has purportedly been uploaded onto the internet in the days following the outbreak of a zombie epidemic. In a conversation following the Diary of the Dead press screening, a colleague who works for a prestigious New York museum happened to tell me how, nowadays, the vast majority of the museum’s patrons are not content to merely stand and observe the paintings and other objects in its impressive collection — instead, they feel compelled to take digital photographs of themselves and their friends/relatives in front of, say, a Van Gogh or a Rodin. Romero’s film is, I think, partly a response to this very tendency — to our perpetual camera-readiness in the digital age, the feeling that to film something is to somehow legitimize it, and the counter-intelligence that says seeing is no longer believing.

Some, of course, will come to Romero’s film wanting to see only a gory zombie movie, and they will not go away disappointed. This has always been part and parcel of Romero’s subversive genius. Diary of the Dead is chock full of exploding heads and popping eyeballs, includes what may be moviedom’s first act of human-zombie murder-suicide, and — since this wouldn’t be Romero otherwise — some literal eating of the rich. In the note for Diary in the Toronto festival catalogue, Romero himself points out that the film is neither a sequel to nor remake of his earlier Dead films, but rather something of a new beginning. “This one comes from my heart,” he says — and while few of Romero’s films have ever seemed less than heartfelt, there’s no denying that Diary of the Dead pulsates with the radical vigor and sense of experimentation one expects of a much younger filmmaker.

Much the same could by said of Sidney Lumet, who at 83 emerged with a gripping thriller-cum-melodrama, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, that finds the filmmaker working with his two favorite subjects — crime and family — and drawing brilliant performances from a cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney. And best of all, there was Manoel de Oliveira, unstoppable at 99 with Christopher Columbus: The Enigma, a typically playful contemplation of history, civilization and man’s place in the cosmos, this time with none other than Oliveira himself starring as a historian striving to prove that the famed “discoverer” of America was actually of Portuguese origin. Although the new film of Francis Ford Coppola was nowhere to be seen in Toronto, it’s title seemed to sum up the achievements of these other grand masters: Youth Without Youth.